With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops positioned near Ukraine’s border and President Biden promising to assist Ukraine against a Russian invasion, the risk of nuclear weapons use is once again on the rise. During the Cold War, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), long-range strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) were the primary threat to human civilization. Today, however, it is Russia’s low-yield short-range battlefield nuclear weapons that pose the greatest nuclear threat.
Unlike strategic nuclear weapons like ICBMs and SLBMs, which have a range of more than 10,000 miles and yields above 150 kilotons, battlefield nuclear weapons are primarily short-range (less than 650 miles) and low yield (.1 to 20 kilotons). The Russians maintain an estimated 3,000-6,000 intra-theater nuclear weapons—many of which fall into this category. The United States, however, has no similar arsenal of battlefield nuclear weapons.
In recent years, Russian nuclear weapons were integrated into the nation’s defense posture in much the same way the United States integrated nuclear weapons into its defense of Europe during the Eisenhower administration under the New Look Policy. President Vladimir Putin’s comments concerning his willingness to use nuclear weapons confirm fears that he views nuclear weapons as usable weapons on the battlefield.
Exercises such as GROM-2019 incorporated the use of both Russian strategic and battlefield nuclear weapons with dual-use delivery platforms. ZAPAD 2021 also featured strategic and battlefield nuclear weapons—along with over 200,000 Russian and Belarusian troops. According to one analysis, during ZAPAD 2021 the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces potentially simulated a nuclear attack against NATO.
Prior to the recent move of Russian forces to Ukraine’s border, our analysis suggested that the United States and NATO might face a limited Russian nuclear strike in the wake of a Russian invasion of Baltic NATO member-state, like Estonia, where an American-led relieving force is moving East to expel Russian forces. For the sake of understanding just how usable battlefield nuclear weapons are, we offer the following scenario as an example of what is possible in a variety of different circumstances.
Home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet, interceptor aircraft, and heavy armor, Kaliningrad is also home to Russian battlefield nuclear weapons. Kaliningrad is geographically suited as a military stronghold from which Russia can launch a limited nuclear strike. Public statements by President Putin suggest he will use low yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield if Russia is losing a conventional conflict to NATO forces. This “escalate to deescalate” strategy is designed to create a fiat acompli in which NATO backs down after the use of nuclear weapons.
Since NATO and the United States do not possess a similar spectrum of battlefield nuclear weapons, it should come as no surprise that Russian strategy is designed to exploit that advantage. Russia cannot match NATO’s conventional capability.
Understanding Nuclear Weapons Effects
For this scenario, we assume Russia’s objective in using a nuclear weapon is to demonstrate resolve and escalate a conventional conflict to a point where NATO and the United States capitulate to avoid further escalation. We assume Russia detonates a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon in a rural area ahead of advancing NATO forces.
Such a burst would be smaller than either the Little Boy (15 kilotons) or Fat Man (20 kilotons), which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, but large enough to clearly signal escalatory intent. What makes such a nuclear weapon’s use unexpectedly shocking is how little damage it may potentially cause.
Using the formulae found in Samuel Glasstone and Philip Dolan’s The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, some interesting results present themselves. First, if the Russians were to detonate their 10-kiloton nuclear weapon at a height of burst 587.6 feet above ground level, the ensuing fireball would not reach the ground. Thus, this “fallout free” detonation would not create the nuclear fallout zone that many Americans think results from a nuclear detonation. It would essentially result in a “clean” detonation.
Second, if the weapon were detonated above a rural area in front of advancing American troops, the prompt ionizing radiation (beta and gamma) released from the nuclear blast (deadly to humans) would dissipate within a radius of less than one thousand yards in less than a minute. This means exposed troops marching down a road could be very close to the detonation without receiving a harmful dose of ionizing radiation. If protected inside vehicles, buildings, or foxholes, the minimum safe distance from the detonation is even closer.
Because the detonation described here is a “fallout free” air burst, there is no debris field that poses a radiological threat to American troops. Radiological debris occurs when a “ground burst” sucks material from the ground into the blast cloud, where it is irradiated, and deposits radiological debris back on the ground.
According to our analysis, even if the 10-kiloton detonation were a ground burst, NATO troops would only be required to maneuver one thousand yards to safely move around an irradiated ground zero one day after detonation. Doing so would see an unprotected soldier receive .41 rems of radiation. Considering that a CT scan generates about 1 rem of radiation exposure, the low radiological threat of such a weapon makes its use more feasible.
Third, the blast wave (overpressure) that crushes structures also dissipates after less than one thousand yards. Again, if used as a demonstration strike to signal Russian resolve, the blast wave’s destructive effects in a rural area would cause little damage.
Fourth, the intense thermal radiation (x-ray) released in our theoretical nuclear blast dissipates in a radius of less than one thousand yards and in about one second. Given the location of our demonstration strike, there is limited damage and death due to heat or fire. This contrasts greatly with the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were cities largely comprised of wooden structures. It is important to note that it was fire that caused the majority of death and damage in both cities—not radiation.
Advocates of arms control will certainly take issue with our suggestion that adversaries believe it is possible to contemplate the discreet and limited use of nuclear weapons, but the reality is that Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership believe they have created an asymmetric advantage with their large arsenal of low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons. Denying and mischaracterizing the threat will not make it go away.
The Russian military has the capability and will to use nuclear weapons in limited strikes that are unlikely to lead to full scale nuclear war. If the Russians questions American resolve to trade New York for Berlin, how much more do they question our resolve to trade New York for a cow pasture in northeast Poland? For the Russians, American capability is not in question; it does not exist. It is American will that is under assault.
However, the United States can take effective measures to develop both the capability and will to deter Russian use of battlefield nuclear weapons.
First, it is time for NATO to declare Russia an adversary of the alliance. Absent a clear adversary, it is impossible to effectively plan for deterring or defeating the Russian threat. Making it clear to President Putin that the alliance takes the Russian threat seriously, may signal a level of NATO resolve lacking since the Soviet Union’s collapse. It may also shift the thinking about the nuclear mission of dual-capable aircraft (DCA) in NATO—shifting the purpose of the approximately 150 B61 nuclear weapons in Europe from political tools to weapons of war.
Second, the United States and NATO should invest the time and money required to ensure the alliance’s B61-armed fighter jets maintain readiness rates that allow them to perform the tactical nuclear mission on twenty-four hours’ notice, rather than the months-long schedule. Developing tactics, techniques, and procedures for operating against modern Russian forces are also needed as the nuclear mission shifts from political to operational. Given the domestic politics of some NATO member-states, shifting DCA aircraft and weapons to countries less opposed to nuclear weapons may be necessary. Countries closer to Russia often feel the Russian threat most pointedly.
Third, it is time for the United States to develop a new nuclear-armed ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM II) and medium-range ballistic missile (Pershing III) for deployment in the European theater. Taking a page out of President Ronald Reagan’s playbook in dealing with the Soviet Union prior to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (1987) would go a long way to promoting stable deterrence in Europe. The United States already has the technical capacity to field such weapons and could do so with relative speed.
Admittedly, the Biden administration is under significant pressure from well-funded arms control groups to reduce the size and role of the nation’s nuclear arsenal in the next Nuclear Posture Review. For many of the groups seeking to shape the Biden administration’s nuclear policies, the elimination of nuclear weapons is akin to a religious tenet and is divorced from any strategic assessment of threats and risk. Thus, it is unlikely the President would approve the development and deployment of new nuclear weapons.
However, promises of “integrated deterrence” are unlikely to achieve the desired effects as there is simply no substitution for nuclear weapons. Allowing Russia, and China, to develop nuclear arsenals that are larger and more diverse than the United States’ creates an asymmetric advantage for our adversaries that is not overcome through diplomatic, informational, or economic means. For authoritarian regimes, the language of power is often the only language spoken. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was correct when he said, “Weakness is provocative.” The United States can no longer wish away the problem.
James Ragland is a bioenvironmental engineer and a 15-year veteran of the United States Air Force. Since 2004, he has been a faculty member of the Defense Nuclear Weapons School, the nation’s premier nuclear and radiological education institution. Mr. Ragland is considered a subject matter expert in nuclear policy and deterrence, nuclear weapons subjects to include design and effects, and nuclear proliferation. He also serves as manager of the nation’s most complete classified nuclear weapons museum
Dr. Adam Lowther is Director of the Department of Multi-Domain Operations at the Army Management Staff College where he leads education and research in that area. He was Professor of Political Science at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), he taught Twenty-first Century Conflict to senior service college students in the Advanced Strategic Leadership Studies Program. He is an expert in nuclear deterrence, multi-domain operations, and the nuclear programs of Russia and China.
The views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent those of the United States Government.
February 1, 2022 at 3:49 pm
The current crisis over ukraine was (is) manufactured by war gnomes in Washington and brussels but most likely these critters never factored in the nuke equations in their calculation. (Miscalculation then??)
The whorriors reckon swallowing ukraine into nato would be a pushover just like during the yeltsin era. Heh, heh.
But putin alarmed by shenanigans that could VERY possibly spell a most terrifying end to the donbass natives decided to lay down THE LAW. No official membership for ukraine or else be prepared to taste my big stick.
The manufactured crisis shows that natiins threatened by US and its loyal vassals must develop and KEEP neutron bombs.
Biden is falsely treading on/opting to tread a macho path thinking he is kennedy or clinton or maybe truman. FOOL!!! He’s gonna trip and HANG himself. He’s listening to the half-baked warmongers in state dept and the sycophants in europe. True, US likely to be untouched when sparks start flying, but putin is prepared to use his BIG missiles or big stick to make things right and clear for biden. But nukes, no. There were reports of nukes use by kyiv forces during 2014 fighting in ukraine but no nukes were used except massive heavy firepower was indiscriminately used against civilians. At Ilovaisk (Ilovaiysk) aug 2014 donbass forced whipped kyiv forces using same formula, thus today US is getting closely tied into ukraine mess.
The world awaits biden’s next move. More arms, more troops to eastern europe? Heh, heh, biden’s gonna truly hang himself THIS YEAR!! Second term??? Yeah? forget it.
February 1, 2022 at 4:43 pm
America definitely has a stockpile of more than a thousand variable yield B-61 tactical nuclear bombs that can be delivered by a variety of airplanes including all major U.S. bomber and fighter aircraft. Additionally, the U.S. is building 400 more modernized B-61-12s. This article seems to be based on an entirely false premise.
February 1, 2022 at 4:45 pm
The United States currently has a stockpile of over 1000 variable-yield B61 tactical nuclear bombs that can currently be delivered by a wide variety of fighter and bomber aircraft, including stealth aircraft like the B-2 and the F-22. The U.S. is building 400 new B61-12 tactical nuclear bombs and updated the F-35 so it can also carry this weapon. This article seems to be based on a mostly false premise.
February 1, 2022 at 9:17 pm
Use of so-called ‘low yield russian battlefield nukes’ is a sort of a non sequitur cuz ‘low yield’ is (way) more powerful than nukes used in japan in 1945. These ‘battlefield nukes’ can potentially invite armageddon for northern europe within hours.
Use of such battlefield nukes would be totally unacceptable as smoke and radiation arising from use of such weapons would affect everyone and probably lead to escalation.
If push comes to shove, just because biden and co want their way, a volley of conventional hypersonic rockets would surely change their minds. Why use nukes or ground troops when kinzhals are available?
Now is the time for russia to stand firm and demonstrate to nato and washington that ‘no’ means ‘no’. Want to view business end of an incoming kinzhal, eh, Zelensky?
February 2, 2022 at 12:14 am
In Arc Light, a techno-thriller by Eric L. Harry of 1993, the USAF detonated a warhead at high altitude over the capital of North Korea to stop its invasion of its neighbor. But the concern is that today NATO’s tactical nuclear arsenal only includes a modern vector: the French ASMPA missile flying at Mach 3. Do you really believe that a classic gravitational bomb can get past Russian anti-aircraft defense? Or Chinese?
February 2, 2022 at 2:00 am
Transfer of nuclear weapons to Europe? Seriously? Did you miss Putin’s words that strikes would be made on decision-making centers? If the crazy US government is ready or doesn’t believe, is American civil society ready?
from Russia with love
February 2, 2022 at 8:16 am
“If the crazy US government is ready or doesn’t believe, is American civil society ready?”
American civil society is not told about this. they do not know about the preemptive strike on the decision-making centers. they sincerely think that the bombs will explode somewhere on the other side of the globe. read the comments. they do not understand that they will burn in a nuclear fire in Washington or New York.
February 2, 2022 at 12:18 pm
The comments here approach lunacy. There will be no nuclear exchange. Washington and New York won’t burn simply because if they do, Moscow and dozens of other Russian cities will suffer the same fate. Remember MAD? It still exists. There is nothing to be gained by this stupidity for either side. This tough talk is laughable as if throwing around nukes will prove how tough one side is. This isn’t a barroom fight with two drunken guys talking sh_t! Putin has some legit concerns. Concerns that may or may not lead to an invasion of Ukraine. But one thing for sure is that Russia can achieve their objectives in the region using conventional forces. The use of Nukes would be the stupidest thing Putin could do. And Putin is not a stupid man. Unlike some of the comments here.
February 2, 2022 at 7:08 pm
The USA B-61-4 & -10 Variable Yield nukes can be delivered by US F-16 & F-15 aircraft stationed in Europe and soon (around 2023/2024) by the F-35 jets too.
February 2, 2022 at 7:31 pm
Let’s not forget that the United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons. And used against the enemy, who did not have nuclear weapons. Nobody scares anyone. It’s just that the reality is this: by virtue of the territories and geographical location, it is the United States that can be completely wiped off the face of the earth. You should not wave a nuclear club in front of an enemy who can simply destroy you completely. As for planes with nuclear bombs: they shine on Russian radars like a Christmas tree and no one will take their planes into the air in response. A huge and unstoppable nuclear strike will follow. Only idiots can not understand this.
February 3, 2022 at 11:03 am
Alex do you honestly think that if the US is “wiped off the face of the map” Russia will not suffer the same fate? Do you think ICBM’s and SLBM’s care about territories and geographical location? EVERY, I repeat EVERY, city in Russia is targetable. You speak as if one side can win a nuclear war. You are sadly mistaken. Only idiots cannot understand this.
February 3, 2022 at 3:56 pm
I didn’t say that someone will win. It will be a disaster for everyone. But due to its geographical position, it is the mainland of S. America that can completely disappear. Eurasia will not sink to the bottom in any way, especially since American missiles are simply not directed at the vast territory of Russia – there is no point. Consequently, it will be bad for everyone, but the chance to save some kind of life in Eurasia is much higher. That’s why I’m asking: is the United States ready to sacrifice ALL of its citizens for the sake of its geopolitical interests?
February 3, 2022 at 5:19 pm
Let me ask you, why would Putin employ nuclear weapons when he doesn’t have to in order to achieve his objective. That would be stupidity as it would invite retaliation which would escalate and get out of hand. In short order there would be no country left to lead and any interest in Ukraine would become insignificant within the first 15 minutes of a nuclear exchange. You seem to find some comfort in that a few farmers in the interior of Russia would survive while the rest of the country (as would the US) would be vaulted back to the stone age. As you ask of the US…would Russia be ready to sacrifice tens of millions of its citizens for the sake of its geopolitical interests in Ukraine? If the 50 largest cities in Russia were wiped off the map would anyone even care about Ukraine any longer? Use some sense. Nuclear war = everyone is a loser; it won’t happen because everyone knows the outcome
from Russia with love
February 4, 2022 at 3:40 am
“There will be no nuclear exchange. Washington and New York won’t burn simply because if they do, Moscow and dozens of other Russian cities will suffer the same fate. Remember MAD?”
do you think that if the US tries to use its arsenal of nuclear weapons stored in Europe against Russia, then Russia will leave it unanswered? The United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons to terrorize civilians. in the event of a conflict between Russia and the United States, American troops in Europe are categorically insufficient to oppose Russian troops. if the United States tries to use nuclear weapons, then a retaliatory strike will be struck on US territory and Washington and New York will burn down.
are you saying this is crazy? Yes! ask your politicians – “are you so mad to arrange a nuclear war and burn the USA?”
from Russia with love
February 4, 2022 at 4:11 am
“Let me ask you, why would Putin employ nuclear weapons when he doesn’t have to in order to achieve his objective.”
you’re right. Russia has enough funds to solve its problems without the use of nuclear weapons. yes, the new Russian defensive doctrine allows for a preemptive strike, but there must be extremely weighty reasons for this. at present there are no such grounds. the issue with Ukraine will be resolved by conventional means and only if the Ukrainian authorities try to resolve the issue with the LDNR by force. BUT! the question remains what will the US do? listening to the rhetoric of American officials and some congressmen and generals, I come to the conclusion that they may well provoke a nuclear conflict. Russia’s demands to remove American missile facilities from Russia’s borders were refused by the United States. what will the US do when Russian missiles appear in Venezuela and Cuba?
February 4, 2022 at 11:27 am
Sleep soundly tonight. The US will not use nuclear weapons for the sake of Ukraine. In fact, they won’t even use conventional weapons, outside of possibly supplying some anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainians. This whole thread is a straw man argument. As I’ve said repeatedly there is absolutely no reason either side would employ nukes…none…nada. Capice? So this entire discussion of nukes is pure fantasy and quite honestly ludicrous. Some people here need to get out of their cold-war mindset. This is not 1960-80. Russia poses no threat to NATO and NATO will never ever set foot on Russian territory. Hitler and Stalin are long dead and its time that the US and Russia viewed the world with common interests in mind instead of re-fighting the cold war. Each nation has real concerns and real enemies. Those enemies are not each other. At least not any longer. Personally, I believe the US should get out of Europe entirely and let the Europeans deal with their own issues. No one here except the cold warriors who profit from this insanity even give a sh_t about Ukraine. The majority of Americans couldn’t even find it on a map no less be willing to send their sons to die there. So let’s cut all the talk about nuclear fire and striking the decision makers…OK?
February 6, 2022 at 10:10 am
The United States has a doctrine of the right to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Russia does not have such a doctrine, only two points: 1. If there is a nuclear attack, 2. If the state can be destroyed by other methods. So who is the aggressor? If you are an American, then you should not rattle your outdated nuclear weapons, live in peace at home and do not climb from the country thousands of kilometers away from you.
February 7, 2022 at 10:30 pm
The nuclear war with tactical nuclear weapon will certainly lead to all out nuclear Armageddon. Is Ukraine or North Stream 2 worth the risk ? In the meantime, China build the network of 40,000 km high-speed trains travelling well over 350 km/hour. How many high-speed train we have here in the USA ? Answer is: 0km. We spent $30 trillions on endless wars since 1945. We should focus on infrastructure, health and education not propping up industrial-military complex as Eisenhower warned us 60 years ago. We cannot win the nuclear war against Russia and China unless we collectively destroy this small space station called Planet Earth.
February 7, 2022 at 10:38 pm
To be fair, we had 13 wars in the last 30 years and lost all of them, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The Most Honest 3 Minutes in US TV HISTORY; Oliver Stone Speech:
February 25, 2022 at 3:51 pm
Oh, it’s not just the United States. If Russia continues, they will be blown off the face of the map by far more than the United States.
Know your friends Vlad. There’s one right below you that isn’t really a friend. No honor among thieves as they call it. Russia was foolish enough to “ally” with Adolf Hitler, too, until he slaughtered 24 million of you.
You’ve got a bigger enemy than the United States right on your doorstep and don’t know it. Morons.
February 25, 2022 at 7:08 pm
What a warlike rabbit. Probably a Nazi, judging by the way he shows no knowledge of the history of the Second World War. So, rabbit, look at the globe, at the maps, study the geography and what geographic objects are located where. Russia has a better chance of recovering than a country that would be the Canada-Mexico Strait if some crazed heads in Washington wanted to push the button.